Drive-In Dust Offs: THE FURY (1978)

2016/07/02 16:59:12 +00:00 | Scott Drebit


1978 cast a long shadow in the world of horror. From Dawn of the Dead to Halloween, the landscape was abundant with everything from the socially relevant to the singularly terrifying, from superior remakes (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) to quirky haunted houses (The Evil). And then there’s the red headed stepchild that no one talks about: Brian DePalma’s The Fury. Frenetic, action packed, and gruesome, The Fury never gets the love from even most DePalma fanatics. What a shame – it’s never less than entertaining, and at its best showcases the director’s mesmerizing visual touch.

Released in March by Twentieth Century Fox, The Fury made $24 million against its $5.5 million budget. That’s good green, folks, and DePalma received favorable reviews,  still basking in a critical glow left over from his previous effort, Carrie (’76). So why is it so easily dismissed, ranked along the lines of efforts like Wise Guys, or God help us, The Bonfire of the Vanities?

Before we delve into the why, let’s discuss some what. Peter Sandza (Kirk Douglas – Saturn 3) and his son Robin (Andrew Stevens – The Seduction) are vacationing on a beach in the Middle East with Peter’s old co-worker, Ben Childress (John Cassavetes – The Incubus). Peter and Ben used to work for a shadow faction of the government, and Robin is to be enrolled in a school for psychically gifted teenagers, The Paragon Institute, run by Ben. Before you can say “set-up”, Peter is besieged by a terrorist attack on the beach, and Robin is whisked away by Ben to “safety”. Surviving the attack, and realizing Ben masterminded it, Peter shoots him before swimming off to plan his son’s rescue.

We cut to a year later, and back in the States Peter has tracked down another teenager, Gillian (Amy Irving – Carrie). With similar powers to Robin, she is handpicked by Ben to attend Paragon. Unable to get to her directly due to Ben’s constant search for him, Peter uses an ex who works there, Hester (Carrie Snodgrass – Ed Gein), to get him close to Gillian in the hope that she will be able to help him track down his son. But with Robin’s powers growing stronger and out of control, will Peter be too late?

Coming off the surprise success and reaction to Carrie, DePalma decided to further explore psychic phenomena, again through a teenager’s eyes. However, with a lot more coin at his disposal, he decided to try and widen the story, choosing screenwriter and novelist John Farris’ (Dear Dead Delilah) tale of espionage and telepathic warfare. Prescient too – this was released a few years before Scanners, which delved into a not dissimilar government conspiracy plot, with some rather familiar visuals, as well. A bigger budget also allowed DePalma to bring in bigger names; in addition to Douglas, Cassavetes, and Snodgrass (who came out of a seven year retirement for this), he enlisted Charles Durning (Sisters) and Fiona Lewis (Strange Behavior) in key supporting roles.

As far as the story goes, it is widened – to a fault. There’s a lot going on here; we have an action movie with Peter eluding Ben and his cronies, we have Gillian trying to come to grips with her talents, and an ending where all the strands sort of bump into each other. So instead of Carrie’s singular focus on teenage rebellion/angst, we’re really not sure what The Fury is about. I suppose we could say it’s about human connection – Peter trying to reconnect with his son, Gillian reaching out to the similarly afflicted Robin – but that’s a really broad umbrella to seek shelter under.

That’s not a criticism, but mere fact. When you have the cinematic sensibilities of DePalma, meaning can be obtained through the sheer force of visual stimuli; he’s always been more show than tell, and The Fury is a giddy tour through his toolbox, with a few shiny new wrenches utilized. There’s a scene where Gillian “sees” an incident that involved Robin at the Institute by grabbing Durning’s hand. (Hmm. That’s an interesting idea.) As it plays out on screen, Gillian stands in the foreground watching it, enveloped by it, not unlike standing way too close to a projected image. It’s a mesmerizing moment; a chance for DePalma to give a unique perspective on a time worn trope – through Gillian we feel like we’re a part of the scene.

And that’s just one moment. The Fury is a film that consists of them; no themes to mull over, no through line – just a filmmaker topping himself (or at least entertaining himself) at every turn with a joy of moviemaking. It also needs to be said that as often as he is compared to Hitchcock, it isn’t overt here. Which is kind of bizarre considering the Peter/Government stuff would have been right up Hitch’s alley. Instead DePalma seems intent on forming his own stable of tenets and attitudes through the lens; Carrie’s quick camera cuts to close-up, the aforementioned Gillian theatre experience, and a beautiful slow motion chase sequence that he would revisit and refine for The Untouchables (1987). All this and more shows a filmmaker expanding his own palette.

So you’re saying, “I love Three Days of the Condor, but where’s the horror?” Oh, it’s here folks – I’m actually amazed this thing got an R rating. Let’s just say when you have make up legends Rick Baker (pre An American Werewolf in London), Rob Bottin (The Thing), and Greg Cannom (Hannibal) at your disposal, they’re not filming Victorian picnics. Blood flows freely; usually due to Gillian and Robin’s powers, and always very messy. Witness Fiona Lewis spin like a crimson top! See John Cassavetes shake, convulse and finally burst like an indie filmmaker piñata! A shot, I might add, filmed lovingly from every angle, and extended so long, you can practically hear DePalma cackling at the sheer absurdity of it all.

A majestic score by John Williams (Jaws, Star Wars) gives the proceedings a sense of urgency, eloquence, and perhaps more importance than required. Because honestly what we’re dealing with is nothing more than a pulpy potboiler, a story one step removed from a teenage coming of age fantasy tale with an espionage twist. (Will Daddy save me in time? Help!) And this is at the core of The Fury’s lack of respect and flurry of disdain. It’s childish; the story is puerile and doesn’t hold together, there’s no overriding theme to hold the disparate elements together, and on and on.

All of the above may be true. But join me back in the plus column, won’t you? For starters, it’s very well acted. Seeing Douglas play a tough guy this late in his career (he was 62 at the time) is exhilarating, and shows his tender side in moments with or about his son. Cassavetes gives great, evil smarm, with a crooked smile and arm to boot. And of course Irving is sweet and charming – until the end, that is. The whole cast is solid and amplifies another DePalma strength; his rapport with actors. No one’s ever claimed his films were poorly performed. (By this point, Nicolas Cage has been sainted above the critical realm.) The film also boasts some of DePalma’s most visceral thrills; the final fifteen minutes alone contain two, and I haven’t even mentioned a kinetic amusement park scene that manages to set US/Mid East relations back a ways as well.

Even if The Fury is just DePalma flexing his celluloid muscles (but man, what a body), it doesn’t make it a lesser film; if anything, it shows him coming into his own, stepping out of the shadows, and showing the world the power of sight and sound. When those elements combine (as the ending indelibly proves), the results are, to say the least, explosive.

The Fury is available on Region 2 Blu-ray from Arrow Video, and Region 1 DVD from Twentieth Century Fox.

Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: TRICK OR TREAT (1986)
  • Scott Drebit
    About the Author - Scott Drebit

    Scott Drebit lives and works in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is happily married (back off ladies) with 2 grown kids. He has had a life-long, torrid, love affair with Horror films. He grew up watching Horror on VHS, and still tries to rewind his Blu-rays. Some of his favourite horror films include Phantasm, Alien, Burnt Offerings, Phantasm, Zombie, Halloween, and Black Christmas. Oh, and Phantasm.